Inadequate home internet speeds cause UK digital divide

The results of a new study into real-life consumer experiences of home internet connections in the UK has suggested a 'digital divide’, with almost a third of Britons experiencing inadequate throughputs with download speeds lower than 2 Mbps or upload speeds lower than 1 Mbps. Amy Wallington investigates.

According to Ofcom, speeds higher than 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for upload is considered a “decent” broadband service, in which case, just 64% of UK homes have a “decent” service.

Conducting the study, mobile network benchmarking firm Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) tested speeds of home internet connections in over 2,000 households as well as conducting in-depth consumer research into how home internet performance has impacted people over the course of the pandemic, especially as more of us are working from home now than ever before. 

The study primarily involves ISPs, as almost all (89%) of the homes tested and surveyed use their home broadband network to connect to the internet, as opposed to their mobile network. 

Isolated in isolation
Back in March when the world was suddenly told to stay at home, many of us experienced challenges with the huge sudden strain on the world’s internet. Major streaming services even had to lower their quality in order to save bandwidth usage. 

Inequalities of home internet performances has impeded some consumers’ abilities to work and stay connected during the pandemic and lockdown periods, the study has found. A noticeable ‘digital divide’, 62% of respondents reported experiencing a range of issues when connected to their home internet, including not being able to load website, stream videos, or connect to video conferences. 

These issues led to 52% of participants stating that they felt isolated during parts of the first national lockdown. 

Tero Vesalainen
Image: Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock.com

Incompetency 
While most offices ensure a good level of connectivity and internet bandwidth, the nation was thrown into the deep end when it comes to home networks with no time to prepare for everyone working and learning from home. It is suggested this has impacted on professional lives. 

The study found that half of respondents felt ‘judged’ about their competency if their network doesn’t hold up when speaking to colleagues in a work setting from home. But it’s not just about feeling that way; over a third (37%) admitted that they also question their colleague’s competence when they see them experiencing connectivity issues. This figure rose to 55% in Greater London.

Many of us now rely on video conferencing as a way to interact with colleagues and customers. However, this is the area people are most worried about when it comes to connection issues, with 34% saying they have had problems with video calling and conferencing over the last few months. 

Just over one in ten participants said that a colleague has commented on their poor connection during a video or voice call. This figure increases to almost two in 10 among the younger workers aged 18 to 24. 

However, data shows that video calling and conferencing is here to stay, with the majority of people in the UK (65%) intending to continue using video call platforms after this year. 

Here to stay
One of the biggest video conferencing platforms, Zoom has experienced exponential growth this year, with Q3 revenue up by 367% year-over-year. 

Tom Homer, SVP Europe, at global cloud and networking provider, GTT said: “Cloud applications like Zoom used to be viewed by many as a useful alternative to in-person collaboration. This year, they’ve more than proven their value as the primary way for many enterprises to keep connected with their workforce, customers and partners during the pandemic.”

The conferencing platform also reported a 485% increase in customers in Q3, with more than 10 employees year-on-year, “validating the continued importance these key cloud-based technologies play in the ‘new normal’ all businesses are faced with today,” added Homer. 

Girts Ragelis
Image: Girts Ragelis / Shutterstock.com

“The shift to digital working has accelerated in 2020, and as a result the public internet has become even more critical to support enterprise connectivity, as opposed to the private networks many have been used to relying primarily on,” he recognised. “At GTT, we’ve seen internet traffic volumes are already more than 50% higher than they were this time last year. Traffic on the internet usually grows 20-30% year-over-year, so 2020 stands out. 

“With an uptick like that, businesses will increasingly be in need of a cloud-optimised network that ensures security, resiliency, flexibility and agility. Without reliable and robust network backbone in place they run the risk of reduced productivity due to downtime and lack of security. However, organisations can combat this with a software-defined approach to their wide area networking and security posture.”

He continues: “Implementing SD-WAN can ensure that traffic takes the most direct and low-latency path to mission-critical applications. With all of the benefits SD-WAN has to offer, businesses can build a strong cloud networking strategy that will see them through next year and beyond.”

Rural vs urban
Interestingly, the study found that more people in urban areas felt isolated due to poor internet connectivity at home than those in rural residencies. Those living rurally are also more likely to address connectivity issues, with 39% saying they would change providers compared to just 27% of urban residents. 

The reliance on mobile signals is also important as 20% of all consumers said that they switch from their Wi-Fi to their mobile network when experiencing poor connectivity during a video call. 

There is optimism surrounding the promise of 5G, as 26% think that it will help fix the nation’s ‘digital divide’ in the future, the study revealed. This figure increased to 34% for those living in urban areas. 

“The fact that a third of homes in the UK don’t have sufficient speeds to perform routine tasks is disappointing,” commented Paul Carter, CEO of GWS. “It’s a real eye opener, particularly at a time when everyone is at home and relying on their networks more than ever. Like it or loathe it, life as we know it has changed and having a sufficient internet connection is essential for being able to work and live. Without reasonable throughputs, consumers risk feeling disconnected, frustrated, and anxious. 

Marko Aliaksandr
Image: Marko Aliaksandr / Shutterstock.com

“But there is hope,” he continued. “While it’s unsurprising that people who have poor internet connections will change broadband providers when they can, we’re also seeing people willing to switch to mobile which most likely indicates that indoor mobile coverage is improving over previous years. 

“This will only be intensified by the rollout of 5G around the country. We have been testing the performance of 5G in cities across the UK and we are already seeing promising speeds within urban areas. As such, 5G should be a potential solution to the problem that so many homes are currently experiencing throughout the UK. This is probably why savvy consumers are already heralding it as the future to help fix the nation’s digital divide.”

“In addition, consumers in the UK should know that, per Ofcom, they have a right to request a decent broadband service. Many of the participants in our study may want to consider this or go completely wireless and work through their mobile operator.”